Carnegie Mellon University

The Piper

CMU Community News

Piper Logo
October 16, 2012

Wynn Studies Evolution of Citizen Science

By Shilo Rea

Amateur scientists have long helped researchers collect data. That relationship keeps changing thanks to crowdsourcing.

"The Internet is becoming a game changer in citizen science," said James Wynn, an associate professor of English who is working on a book about citizen science.

Wynn is looking at the ethical issues raised by citizen science in his new book, which will focus on how citizens and scientists engage with each other.

"The extent to which scientists might exploit citizens and exploit the idea that citizens are participants in science has not been fully explored yet,"
he said.

Wynn teaches courses on the rhetoric of science, rhetoric and public policy and rhetoric and the public sphere. He credits the university and the Dietrich College for creating an interdisciplinary atmosphere, in which an English professor can research science and mathematics.

"I can work with engineers, nuclear engineers, nuclear physicists and people studying risk and risk management," he said. "It's a place where there are truly cross-disciplinary projects."

A recent Carnegie Mellon citizen scientist project out of the CREATE Lab is the Nearby Nature GigaBlitz. The global effort works to reveal extraordinary biodiversity of the ordinary settings where people live, learn and work.

A famous example of citizen science is the National Audubon Society's Christmas Bird Count, which has happened for more than 100 years. Over the holidays, they asked local residents to count birds in specific areas and used the data to determine bird populations and migration patterns.

Wynn, who has an interest in public policy and nuclear power, looked at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster from 2011 and how the Internet is making it possible to provide nearby residents with comprehensive readings of radiation levels.

"After the Fukushima accident, this group called Safecast said that they were not satisfied with how the government had been reporting data on radiation," he said. "They went out, did their own measurements and created a website to put the information on."

Computers are allowing citizens to do science for themselves in a way that has never happened before, he said. It is changing the gathering and visualization of risk information by allowing for more detail.

"Safecast is a perfect example - they're doing their own data gathering and data representation," Wynn said. "I'm also interested in how this changes argument. When citizens begin to gather their own data and broadcast it, it creates new problems."

When Safecast first started collecting and sharing radiation information, they had to defend their practices, he said. Once they became more educated through fieldwork and designed new Geiger counters so that radiation measurements could be downloaded directly to the Internet, they began to challenge the government's practices. The government, in turn, has to defend their position and reinforce their authority and credibility.

This will be Wynn's second book. "Evolution by Numbers: The Origins of Mathematical Argument in Biology" was released earlier this year.

For more information on Wynn's citizen science work, watch this video: